NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who started off Series Ten pretty well last week, and thankfully, the show continues to be going strong with the season’s sophomore episode this week. “Smile” took the Twelfth Doctor and Bill to an all-new location, a shiny new human colony in the distant future that outwardly appears to be a paradise. Obviously though, it’s not any time to relax, or else we wouldn’t have a Doctor Who episode. Naturally, all is not as it seems here!
This episode provided another standout example of unsettling, yet intriguing mystery for The Doctor and his companion, as they quickly become awed by the scenery around them, despite obviously pondering where the people have gone. The only things that seem to be populating the colony are voiceless robots that entirely communicate via Emojis. They’re genuinely adorable at first, though naturally, there’s a sinister secret behind them, which is revealed right from the very start of the episode; The robots have been turning people into compost for the plants, and now no humans are left!
These robots, called the Vardy, were excellent antagonists for the episode, being a perfect blend of charming and terrifying. Even The Doctor effectively points out that the robots being slow isn’t necessarily assuring, since foes that chase you slowly are foes that don’t need to run in order to kill you! Things only become worse when the city itself is revealed to be alive with tiny machines too, seemingly operating at the behest of the Vardy. One has to wonder why the Vardy don’t bring the entire city down on The Doctor and Bill right away, but this is at least partially explained by the fact that they’re not inherently evil robots, especially since they don’t kill people that are smiling, in a nice creepy turn.
This emotion hook was another twist that helped make the Vardy such fascinating antagonists for the episode. Eventually, it comes out that humans deliberately built the robots to ensure happiness and fulfillment of all of their desires in their new colony home, after they’re forced to evacuate Earth en masse, in an event that Doctor Who has made reference to numerous times throughout its history. This colony even deliberately calls back to the Tenth Doctor episode, “New Earth” from Series Two as well (this could very well even be the same colony world from that episode!), which was another effective way to derive a conflict from Earth’s over-reaching for the perfect living conditions, only this time with habitat instead of disease. Since the Vardy don’t think like humans however, they see a cure for negative emotion in one’s living space as a removal of the need to live, which is exactly what happens when a beloved woman dies for the first time at the colony. This is all discovered later by Bill, right as The Doctor plans to blow the entire colony to kingdom come, thinking that it will save an incoming batch of colonists.
Another great twist was had from here though, when it’s discovered that the colonists aren’t coming; They’re already here! The Doctor coming that close to obliterating Earth’s remaining population was really nicely hair-raising, if a bit sloppy for The Doctor. Then again, there really wasn’t any evidence that anyone else was around, even if The Doctor would still be destroying a vital human settlement and fleeing, had he gone through with his original plan. The Doctor works in mysterious ways, I suppose, even if this cold, somewhat haphazard strategy felt more like it belongs in the more coldly rational Classic Who, rather than the more actively pro-human New Who.
Once the humans do wake up, and they are informed of the situation, they naturally move to attack the Vardy, only to find themselves quickly outgunned. Now, finally, with the entire city threatening to come down on them, The Doctor employs a Deus Ex Machina with his Sonic Screwdriver to reset all of the Vardy, wipe their memories, and give humans the opportunity to co-exist with them under different parameters. Yes, admittedly, this was a bit of a frustrating conclusion to an otherwise great episode, since The Doctor’s city-wide re-wiring of the Vardy came far too easily, especially when the episode conveniently doesn’t address whether the humans were able to negotiate worthwhile terms of living with the newly self-aware Vardy or not. Moreover, if The Doctor could just use his Sonic Screwdriver to reprogram an entire city of robots to lose their murderous memories, why the hell didn’t he do that right from the start?! It still would have given him time to discover whether any other people were at the colony or not before leaving!
Beyond the disappointing cop-out resolution though, the only other major sticking point was the absence of Nardole, who is conveniently shuffled off to go make tea off-screen for the entire episode. That’s kind of lame, considering how well Nardole interacts with the Twelfth Doctor. Besides, what’s the point of making Nardole a companion if he’s not going to be around regularly? It doesn’t even look like Nardole’s going to be a part of next week’s episode either, which is foreshadowed when The Doctor and Bill land back in a frozen London, only to be greeted by an elephant. I guess we’ll have to see where this bizarre scenario spawned from next week, but even so, the absence of Nardole will likely make it a bit less fun.
Doctor Who delivered a really great conflict, atmosphere and general cleverness with the Vardy in this week’s episode, providing a really great sophomore trip for The Doctor and Bill, and the first proper trip through time for the both of them as a team too. Again, Nardole being benched, even temporarily, was irritating, and it feels like the writers didn’t have an exit strategy for the Vardy, so The Doctor had to employ some especially questionable Sonic Screwdriver bullshit to solve everything again. Still, it’s great when the show effectively makes a conflict that manages to genuinely center itself around a dangerous force that isn’t simply evil, especially when it comes as a product of human hubris. With The Doctor and Bill seemingly headed to a different past next week, hopefully they’re just as fun to experience together on the other side of the time spectrum!
- Standout creepy, yet adorable antagonists
- Clever story twists that prevent the Vardy from being truly evil
- Bill continues to be an effective companion in the future
- The Doctor's Deus Ex Machina fix for the Vardy
- Nardole being benched so early in the season